Daniel Boone's "Rifle"
I had the chance to visit Frankfort this past week chaperoning my daughter’s 4th grade field trip. It had been some time since I had been there, but was looking forward to seeing the new Kentucky Historical Society’s museum. When I was there as a kid, they had a rifle that the display plaques said belonged to Daniel Boone. Some years later an author, Joe Nickell, wrote a book called Ambrose Bierce is missing and other historical mysteries. One of the chapters is dedicated to several items purported to have belonged to Daniel Boone. The following is an excerpt from that chapter dealing with the rifle on display on Frankfort.
Among the best known of the “D.B” carvings is that on the stock of a rifle in the museum of the Kentucky Historical Society. That the initials are supposed to refer to the famous Kentuckian is clear from the inscription carved on the other side: “BooNs bESt FREN.”
The inscription implies this was Boone’s favorite rifle, whereas Boone reportedly referred to his trusty firearm as “Old Tick-Licker.” He would not have carved “FREN” in any case: Rather, he spelled the word with the final “d,” as in a letter to his sister-in-law in which he sent his affection to “all my frends.” The possessive form of his name is also wrong since he retained the final “e” there as well. For example, in a survey document in his handwriting he referred to “said Boones SW corner.”
Cut into the gunstock are also 15 notches – “for Indians shot,” according to the man who sold the rifle to the historical society at the turn of the century. But Kentucky historian Winston Coleman stated, “I seriously doubt that Boone put the notches there. In the first place, those people thought to much of their guns to mutilate them.” Another historian, Bayless Hardin, agreed: It seems the custom of notching a pistol or rifle originated out West during “the Buffalo Bill era.”
Museum records inform that the rifle was acquired by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1904 from “Prof. Gilbert Walden.” No doubt that title “Professor” conjures up visions of a venerable historian, possibly even a Boone expert. Actually, a somewhat different impression comes from Walden’s letter to the Governor of Kentucky in 1900. The bold letterhead reads: “CULTURE. ORATORY. PATRIOTISM. STORY. AND. SONG. AMERICA”S FAMOUS ELOCUTIONIST.” Below, in large ornate letters is: “Gilbert Walden, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma.” “Professor” Walden’s Photo dominates the letterhead. It shows him seated, dressed in western attire, with a rifle balanced on his knee and a pistol stuck in his belt. In bold letters is this additional list of his talents: “Noted Cow-Boy Orator, Rough Rider, Scholar and Rifle Shot.”
In a sprawling hand, the self-described “Scholar and Rifle Shot” wrote of the rifle.
It is about 140 years old, and was made for Boone by a famous gunsmith from N.C., named Graham, who lived on the Elkhorn in Ky., and made guns for many years after the Pioneers had moved away or died. I got it through the kindness of Dr. Percy de Bonay, of Tallulah Falls, Ga., who had gotten it from a gentleman in Louisville and who had found it through a newspaper article in a country paper in N.E. Kentucky.
It was given to an old trapper and friend of Boone named Dedman and kept in a mountaineer family for years. For a long time it was hidden away in an old closet until found. The people were nice and intelligent who had it, but poor, and they sold it to a Col. Ellis (I think) of Louisville and a friend of Dr. de Bonay’s.
If the rifle was indeed made when Walden claimed – circa 1760 – it would be most unlikely to have actually belonged to Daniel Boone. That is because Boone’s rifles, as well as his other possessions and those of his companions, were confiscated by the men’s Indian captors in late 1769. The only weapon the men were allowed to take with them on their release was a small ”trading gun.”
Another problem with Walden’s story concerns his mention of the “newspaper article in a country paper in NE Kentucky.” We found a photocopy of what must be the same old clipping in the files of the Kentucky Military History Museum. It is unidentified and undated and quotes an anonymous “gentleman from Eastern Kentucky.” The man (who refers to himself with the royal “we”) stated that he had an old rifle which was “said to have been” owned by Daniel Boone. He mentioned the 15 notches and the “rude letters: BoONEs bEst FRIN.” But the anonymous gentleman gave a notably different record of the rifle’s prior ownership.
The point here is not that “Professor” Walden intended to be deceptive in this regard. (After all, it was probably he who supplied the old clipping.) Rather, it is merely to show that the alleged provenance is even more tortuous and uncertain and unverifiable than has heretofore been reported.
In short, the gun’s provenance is confused and suspect, and the inscription is fraudulent. As forgery expert Charles Hamilton told us, shortly after he had exposed the “Hitler Diaries” as spurious on the basis of the handwriting, “I think the Kentucky Historical Society has a lot of nerve to display a remark [i.e., “BooNs bESt FREN”] that even from this distance I can spy as a fake.”
In addition to this damning evidence, during our investigation we repeatedly heard doubts expressed about the rifle’s antiquity. These came from a number of knowledgeable persons. A long-rifle expert who had once thoroughly examined the rifle branded it an obvious fake, and a collector of antique firearms agreed the rifle is of doubtful authenticity on stylistic grounds.
Such expressions persuaded us to contact an independent expert, and we asked for a recommendation from Henry J. Kauffman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, author of the important text, The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle (1960). Since the rifle in question was alleged to have come from North Carolina, Mr. Kauffman suggested we contact John Bivins of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who readily agreed to assist us in our investigation.
In a subsequent letter, Mr. Bivins wrote:
Matters of Provenance are certainly important to us in studying any material culture, but we certainly can’t overlook the documentation provided by an object itself. Matters of style, technology, and social custom can speak as powerfully as the documented history of an object, and the case of the “Boon” rifle, they speak clearly enough to provide us with more information than the history of ownership does.
To be as succinct as possible, I believe that it is generally understood among students of the American long rifle who are familiar with this particular weapon that the piece is exceedingly unlikely to have enjoyed actual ownership by Daniel Boone. That is certainly my opinion.
The rifle is a southern Appalachian type, showing in it’s architecture (shaping of the stock), form of the iron mounts (particularly the trigger guard) and the use of a bone heel plate at the butt a combination of details typical of the mountain areas of NW Georgia, Western South Carolina and SW North Carolina. The style of the stock, most particularly the thickness of the butt and the shaping of the wrist area, indicates a probable date range of 1820-30, and this is reinforced by the style of the rifles lock.
Citing the tendency of pre-1800 American rifles to show “a good deal more of the Baroque heritage of European gunstock design.” Mr. Bivins stated: “stocks were more robustly shaped, and butt plates were significantly wider. Rifles of the Pre-Revolutionary period often have a butt plate 2” in width or more.” He added, “Every aspect of the style of the ‘Boon’ rifle clearly points to a later period.
In conclusion Mr. Bivins stated that, while Boone undoubtedly had owned a number of long rifles, “I most emphatically do no believe ‘Boons best fren’ to be one of them.” He added: “It could not have been made earlier than the year of Boone’s death, and for that matter I don’t believe Boone would have so wretchedly defaced the stock of a rifle in such a manner. I have never seen any long rifle so treated other than a few that had been decorated by plains Indians. In addition, we have no evidence of a gun maker by the name of Graham.”
Notice in the photos, the state no longer makes the claim it belonged to Daniel Boone. If any one is interested, the white item near the end of the rifle was said to be a plaster cast of Daniel Boone’s skull when his remains where re-interred in Frankfort in 1845. No such record of anyone making the cast officially exists. The notches, mentioned in the article, are located to the front of the rifle’s lock. Also, note the Indian carving with the western plains style headdress. The Shawnee and Cherokee of Daniels day would have been more apt to wear a turban. Even those this rifle wasn’t Daniel Boones, it still interesting to see a rifle from the early 1800’s.
"Some people spend an entire lifetime wonderng if they made a difference. The MARINES don't have that problem."
- President Ronald Reagan 1985